Chelsea tightened their grip on the Premier League title race and delivered a blow to Arsenal’s aspiraions with a convincing victory at Stamford Bridge. Manager Arsene Wenger, watching from the stands as he served the third of a four-match touchline ban, was hoping Arsenal could respond to Tuesday’s shock home defeat by Watford – but Chelsea exerted their authority to leave the Gunners 12 points behind the leaders. Marcos Alonso gave Chelsea the lead after 13 minutes, heading home after Diego Costa’s header came back off the bar. Arsenal were unhappy with Alonso’s challenge on Hector Bellerin that saw the defender take a heavy blow to the head which forced his substitution, but referee Martin Atkinson saw nothing wrong. Eden Hazard made the decisive contribution with a magnificent solo goal eight minutes after half-time, leaving a trail of Arsenal players in his wake in a run from the halfway line before beating Petr Cech.
The goalkeeper’s poor clearance gifted substitute Cesc Fabregas Chelsea’s third, five minutes from time, and Olivier Giroud’s late goal barely counted as consolation for Arsenal. The visitors had chances but saw Thibaut Courtois save well from Gabriel, Mesut Ozil and Danny Welbeck. Chelsea’s lead at the top of the Premier League was 12 points at the conclusion of this victory – and to underscore the scale of their improvement, it is worth going back to the first meeting between these clubs at Arsenal in September. Their 3-0 loss to the Gunners left Chelsea in eighth place and eight points behind then-leaders Manchester City after six games. This proved to be a watershed moment for the Blues and manager Antonio Conte. In the intervening 18 games after Conte switched to his preferred three-man central defensive system, they have won 16 league games, lost at Spurs and drawn at Liverpool. It has been a powerhouse run that has effectively brought a 20-point swing in the title race. Chelsea once more looked the model of efficiency, although they conceded more chances than Conte would have liked, with N’Golo Kante a tireless midfield influence.
The Italian wanted to make amends for that heavy loss at Emirates Stadium and he had the players and system to do it in style. And when they have individuals who can produce game-defining moments like Hazard, it is almost impossible to see any way they will leave the door far enough ajar for any of their pursuers to squeeze through. Conte’s celebration after Hazard’s goal showed how much the win meant to him. Arsenal’s loss here at Stamford Bridge caps a dreadful week for the Gunners and manager Wenger – watching from the stands as their title hopes were surely snuffed out for another year. First they were knocked off course by that defeat by Watford and here they were beaten by a Chelsea side that looked like everything Arsenal did not. Strong, streetwise, ruthless and confident. Wenger’s side were limp in the opening phases, not even getting a touch in the Chelsea penalty area for 35 minutes and when chances did come along they were squandered. Wenger can make all the usual positive noises but this was, ultimately, an emphatic beating and barring a dramatic and unforeseen turn of events, the wait for their first title since the year of “The Invincibles” in 2003-04 will go on. A single banner saying “Enough Is Enough. Time To Go” was held aloft in the Arsenal end – but it was almost a token gesture of defiance, rather like Giroud’s late goal.